The 2019 Patriots have now been at it for almost exactly a month.
They’ve taken two road trips for joint practices and returned home with Bill Belichick gushing about the quality of work they got in.
They won a couple of games, unearthed an apparently brilliant rookie receiver named Jakobi Meyers, found that Chase Winovich is more than a pile of hair and a toothy grin, seen traits from Isaiah Wynn that project him as a guy who could play into the 2030s, found their starting quarterback is the same as he ever was and their rookie quarterback is a high-quality block of wood that can be turned into something very useful.
There’s more — almost all of it positive — so it’s been a good month. Which leads us to ask what the Patriots stand to learn from the all-important, third preseason game against the Panthers on Thursday?
Like, is it really “all-important” or are we contractually obligated to call it that?
With stakes as high as they are, organizations are constantly tweaking their approaches. “That’s the way we’ve always done it…” is not acceptable reasoning anymore.
The Rams will play few of their starters this preseason. Head coach Sean McVay explained why.
“When you look at some of the continuity now that we have on both sides of the ball coming back, and you say, ‘If something were to happen, is it really worth that risk in our mind?’ “ said McVay. “We just felt like that answer is ‘No.’ That’s the approach that we’re taking, I totally understand if people don’t agree with that, but we always make decisions that are in the best interests of our team. That’s just really for this unit. Does that mean we’ll always have that luxury? I think if you have a different number of returning players, then the narrative on that is a little different.”
How will the Patriots approach tonight and what are a few of the areas we’ll be locking in on? Glad you asked.
BATTLE SHAPING UP?
The Panthers have an excellent front-seven with players like Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin and Luke Kuechly. And they got pushed around by the Bills, who put up 24 points on the Panthers starters last week in Week 2 of the preseason. Short gave the defense an “F” for its performance. The Patriots, meanwhile, haven’t rolled out their first offense yet. Tom Brady figures to play tonight and — if there’s a lack of production from the offense in his first game-action this preseason — expect the competitiveness to flow over. Brady was expected to play last week but the Patriots pivoted. This is the best chance for meaningful, tackle-to-the-ground competition between now and the opener against the Steelers.
Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen (among others) also haven’t played in the preseason. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera wants to get “three or four” good series out of Newton before he sits him down and if the Patriots match that, they’ll be on the field defensively most of the first half. Throughout camp, the Patriots starting defense has been stifling. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see it take Newton a while to generate any kind of sustained success.
NARROW FOCUS ON WIDEOUTS
The Panthers have a non-imposing group in the secondary. Who will the Patriots throw at them and how will they respond? N’Keal Harry, who was down last week vs. Tennessee and hasn’t practiced since injuring his ankle two weeks ago, is falling behind and really could use the game reps since all he’s seen is two throws (both hauled in, spectacularly). Meanwhile, the activation of Demaryius Thomas and Julian Edelman this week means things just got real for Phillip Dorsett and Maurice Harris. Edelman, obviously, is making the team but Thomas — even if he doesn’t play tonight — could take out either of the other guys if he shows he’s closing in on being able to perform.
TIGHT END CONUNDRUM
Last week, 15-year veteran Benjamin Watson was running around the field in the second half of the Patriots second preseason game with the Titans. He came out of retirement for this? Apparently. With Matt LaCosse injured, Austin Seferian-Jenkins gone months ago and Ryan Izzo more blocker than pass catcher, the whole position group seems oddly constructed. As if there was no plan.
Maybe, as it turns out, the plan is to worry less about the name of the position and more about who can win in the passing game. If that means the team puts Thomas and Harry on the field and their size and strength gives what a tight end would in the passing game, what’s it matter what the position is called? The Patriots don’t care which position gets the football or that everyone is populated with similarly capable players. They know when they go to the line they have pass-catching backs, an inside-outside guy in Edelman and a bunch to choose from for their downfield and possession guys. Keep an eye on how often the Patriots go with no TE.
Rookie Damien Harris had a terrific week against the 2s. Sony Michel is still the better back and will be until further notice but if Harris is here to lighten Michel’s load, it would be good if the weight was a least a little bit devoted to Michel as a pass-catcher. He’s worked a lot at that chore and his suddenness and change-of-direction ability would make him a bit more explosive outside than Rex Burkhead, who has good hands and is elusive but isn’t fast.
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